As a child, I went through puberty early. Age 11, I was the only one in my year group wearing a bra with 4 hooks. I had no idea that this was noteworthy until the boys who sat behind me in my English lessons started to compete to see who could ping the straps while we were supposed to be working silently.
No wonder then that I grew up with a conflicted relationship with my breasts, both resenting them for the unwanted attention they brought me and self-consciously enjoying the illicit feeling of my own desirability.
Breastfeeding is severely lacking in sexual health lessons
I did not consider their primary function in any way and I can’t remember breastfeeding ever being mentioned in any of the sexual health lessons we were forced to sit through embarassed, although I do vividly remember watching a grainy VHS of a woman giving birth in stirrups (three of the boys fainted).
Even now, when you might expect greater enlightenment within the school curriculum, personal, social and health based education is still more focused on how to stick a condom on a cucumber than it is on educating girls and boys about the benefits of breastfeeding. I know, because as a teacher I’ve often been drafted in to facilitate the whole excruciating process…’no girls, you really can’t bend them like that…’
Even now, when you might expect greater enlightenment within the school curriculum, personal, social and health based education is still more focused on how to stick a condom on a cucumber than it is on educating girls and boys about the benefits of breastfeeding
I’m sure there is probably a passing reference to breastfeeding in biology lessons, but if you don’t see it happening in your family, you don’t see it portrayed in the media, you don’t learn about it properly in school….chances are you don’t see it as something normalised and natural and I guess when you do encounter a pair of boobs, maybe your first thought is ‘phwoar’ rather than ‘aww’.
Perhaps surprisingly it’s not just men who seem to have a problem with breastfeeding. Often, negative comments on social media come from female accounts and can be just as vitriolic, equating breastfeeding (especially of older children) with a kind of perverse sexualisation.
In an entirely gross misunderstanding of what breastfeeding is all about, people place odd caveats on it – where it should be allowed, how long for, how there’s no point to it after a certain age – which only exposes their ignorance.
The TV documentary ‘Breastfeeding my boyfriend’
In a recent Channel 4 ‘documentary’ – ‘Breastfeeding my boyfriend’ – viewers were left ‘horrified’ and ‘grossed out’ (good old Daily Mail!) by the depiction of an ‘adult nursing relationship’. According to the programme this is a ‘growing underground scene’ although it was noteworthy that out of the three couples they had
paid persuaded to take part, only one seemed to fit that category. How much of a ‘growing scene’ this constitutes is therefore debatable.
In a recent Channel 4 ‘documentary’ – ‘Breastfeeding my boyfriend’ – viewers were left ‘horrified’ and ‘grossed out’
You can see why it angered so many who have been pushing to normalise breastfeeding, especially of toddler age children and beyond, as it fetishised and sexualised a natural, nurturing act that would usually take place between a parent and child.
You don’t suddenly start breastfeeding a toddler or child as your breastfeeding relationship grows, changes and adapts as your baby does. To begin that scenario with a grown adult man is a perverse corruption of the very nature of breastfeeding. Although breastmilk is wondrously nourishing, has many benefits for the immune system and is the perfect nutritional balance until a baby reaches 6 months, when the WHO then recommends it alongside solids until at least two years of age, it also provides comfort, allows a child to regulate themselves and actually supports them in becoming more confidently independent (one in the eye for the Karens insisting you’ll never get them off you…). Nothing about it is sexual so depicting it as a sexual choice, especially as one that voyeurs gain pleasure from watching, is highly disturbing for many breastfeeders who may already have to battle judgement and unwanted attention when feeding their children in public.
A natural weaning age is thought to be between two and seven, so whatever the couples in the programme were partaking in, it would be considered anthropologically unusual. The fact that the breastfeeding act was not a private thing but shared on porn sites also gives it an entirely different dynamic to the parent/child nurturing dyad.
Traditional media have a responsibility to promote breastfeeding
I am passionate that for the realities of breastfeeding to be ‘normalised’ and for people to feel confident feeding children of any age, but particularly older ones, we need to see it happening. The traditional media we consume has a responsibility to promote the benefits of breastfeeding over the fetishisation and sexualisation of a natural act in what appears to be an extremely marginal group.
The traditional media we consume has a responsibility to promote the benefits of breastfeeding over the fetishisation and sexualisation of a natural act in what appears to be an extremely marginal group.
Perhaps if Channel 4 found that too dull a premise for a programme, they could have looked at how many women are let down by systemic inadequacies in UK support for breastfeeding parents, the shocking figure that almost half of women who start out breastfeeding have stopped by six weeks, with 90% reporting they weren’t ready to do so. or the fact that so many women feeding children past the age of one feel like they can’t talk about it openly because of the perceived stigma and judgement.
Maybe it wouldn’t have created as many social media memes and a trending hashtag, but it might have taken us a step closer towards exposing breastfeeding for what it truly is. Unfortunately, the problem for late night TV producers looking for a sensationalist story, what it happens to be is just not very sexy at all!
Photo credit: bennyandtheboob